Edit: I’ve turned this blog post into a eulogy that I’ll give at Rossmoor for my grandpa’s funeral. He passed away early in the morning on Tuesday, April 27, 2021.
My grandpa, Irving Katuna, was born on January 12, 1929 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was a Saturday, and it was cold. A light dusting of snow passed through Pennsylvania the previous night and the temperature stayed just above freezing the day he was born. I’m not sure how many of his dozen older siblings were still living in the house then, but I picture my infant grandfather passed around to plenty of happy hands when he arrived home from the hospital.
Wilkes-Barre is a coal mining town about 120 miles west of New York City. Its population swelled to a peak of 80,000 around 1930 and declined through the depression and the aftermath of World War II. My grandpa was 11 when the draft was instituted in 1940 and was still too young to serve when the draft ended in 1946. Only about 30,000 people live in Wilkes-Barre today. Industry left, and so did my grandpa.
He matriculated to UCLA but graduated from UC Berkeley and settled in San Francisco. He was the first of his siblings to go to college, a unique opportunity that did not go unnoticed by his older brothers. But in addition to being the youngest, he also was born with a stunted right arm, a midwife’s mishap made during delivery at the hospital that cold Saturday in Wilkes-Barre, which prevented him from helping at the feed store his family owned.
He met my grandma, Berna Mendell, at a dance at the Hillel in San Francisco while he was studying history at Cal. They quickly married and had four children: Linda (my mom), Judy, Bruce, and Brad. Along the way, he earned a Master’s degree from San Francisco State and attempted a Ph.D. but did not submit a thesis. He began his career as a teacher and became a vice principal at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in the Fillmore District before returning once again to the classroom.
My grandpa’s Jewish faith, along with his many years teaching Black students, brought him to Selma, Alabama in 1964. He accompanied five rabbis to support the Montgomery bus boycott and show solidarity of the Jewish community with a popular Christian pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. My grandpa and these rabbis marched and were imprisoned with Dr. King. He spent less than a week in Selma but it would leave an impression on him and his family for the rest of his life. We celebrated his trip to Selma for his 80th birthday, and at 92 he had just completed writing a book about it with support from my mom and cousin Lisa.
My grandpa was opinionated and curious. He was a docent at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences and loved to buy books at thrift shops, a few of which he actually read. He liked pastries for breakfast and would go out of his way to pick up a scone or a bear claw from his favorite bakery. Breakfast at home usually involved cereal, which he kept in neat airtight plastic bins, and he preferred to eat it with fruit salad on top. On special occasions, like when his grandson stayed over, he made french toast in the morning. He enjoyed jogging and playing tennis, and when age forced him to hang up his running shoes, he returned to his lifelong love of swimming. He was a natural leader, someone who tended to reside over the organizations he volunteered for. He loved to join elder hostels, especially in Ashland, Oregon, where he attended the Shakespeare Festival with his wife Thelma for many years.
My grandpa eventually left San Francisco and settled here in Rossmoor where he and Thelma became members of local Democratic and Jewish organizations and discovered the best local Chinese restaurants. Lucid and curious until the end, Irving loved to read and talk to his family.
My house is only a couple of miles away from his apartment here and over the last few years we settled into a routine of bringing Chinese food over and eating dinner together: sweet and sour fish filets for Thelma, tomato beef chow mein for Irv, and vegetable chow mein for me and my girls. When COVID hit, I’d drop the food off and leave, aware that I wouldn’t know which of these dinners would be our last.
Grandpa Irv was immensely proud of all of us. And we were proud of him too.
Farewell, Grandpa Irv. We will miss you.